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Parshas Korach (5768)

The Mystery of the Missing On

This week's portion tells the story of Korach's rebellion against Moses. The first verse states that Korach, who was an aspiring Levite from a distinguished family, took with him those two famous Biblical troublemakers, Dasan and Aviram, and On, son of Peles, to start a revolt against the leadership of Moses and his brother, Aaron, the High Priest. To make a long story very short - Korach, Dasan and Aviram and their families lose the argument and are punished by being miraculously swallowed up alive by the earth. (For the longer version, I recommend reading the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash - see pages 820-830. The English translation is quite readable, and the notes at the bottom are insightful and interesting.)

The question is ... what ever happened to On, son of Peles? He was originally mentioned as one of Korach's co-conspirators, but when it comes to punishment time, his name is not mentioned as one of those swallowed up in the ground.

To solve this mystery, we have to go to the Midrash, which records an Oral Tradition as to what happened behind the scenes of Korach's rebellion.

You see, On descended from the tribe of Reuven, and, as such, was originally supposed to enjoy certain privileges and responsibilities within the hierarchy of the Jewish people. But then came the Golden Calf, and the tribe of Reuven didn't act responsibly as a first- born tribe should, and was subsequently removed from its special status, to be replaced by the tribe of Levi, who did the right thing at the scene of the Golden Calf. Korach persuaded On to rebel against Moses, in order to regain his original, coveted status of privileged firstborn.

The Midrash tells us that, as it happened, On's wife had the insight and intuition to see through Korach's evil scheme, and attempted to persuade her husband not to rebel against Moses, the leader of the Jewish people. Even after hearing her sound arguments, however, On told his wife that he had no choice since he had taken an oath to join Korach, and he couldn't turn back now. So On's wife decided to take matters into her own hands. She fed On a really good meal, and got him intoxicated with some strong Scotch. While he was sleeping inside the tent, she sat herself down at the entrance to the tent, dressed in an immodest fashion. She knew that any minute, Korach would come by to pick up her husband for their planned rebellion against Moses. When Korach and his entourage came and saw her dressed in such a fashion, they immediately turned away from her tent, and left sleeping On alone. (Korach might have been a rebel, but I guess he did have some standards!)

In contrast to On's wife, the Midrash teaches us that Korach's wife was the one who actually instigated his rebelling against Moses in the first place.

What happened next is recorded in the Torah. Korach complains to Moses and tries to start a rebellion against G-d's finest. He and his entire entourage and their families all die a miraculously miserable death - the ground opens up beneath them and swallows them alive. And all this time, On, son of Peles, is sleeping peacefully in his tent, thanks to the wisdom, foresight and heroic efforts of his loyal wife. And now you know ... the rest of the story!

King Solomon writes in Proverbs 14:1: "The wise among women, each builds her house, but the foolish one tears it down with her hands." The Midrash explains this passage to be referring to the wives of On and Korach, respectively.

King Solomon is thus teaching us that On's wife and the courage she showed in saving her entire house from physical and spiritual destruction, are really symbolic of the power of the Jewish woman to create and build the very foundation of the Jewish people - the Jewish home. Whatever her career might be outside the home, the Jewish woman is ultimately responsible for the most important mission there is - to ensure the continuity of our nation by maintaining and strengthening the spiritual vitality of the family unit.

Sometimes it takes the form of heroics like that of On's wife. Her husband is about to do a really stupid thing that can literally destroy the very fabric of the home. In that case, the woman was blessed with the keen insight and strength to do whatever it takes to save the day. Other times, the Jewish woman's job isn't so outwardly glorious. It involves the daily instilling of values and holiness into her husband and children, in whatever forms that may take.

But let no Jewish man (or woman) ever forget the message of the strangely disappearing On - and the central role that the Jewish woman has played, and will always play, in the spiritual and physical survival of the Jewish people.

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